Psalm 32

Confession is good for the soul and the body

In his classic book, The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr took issue with the myths of American exceptionalism and her imagined innocence as a power in the world.  To the amusement of some and the chagrin of others, Americans have persistently imagined themselves as a special people chosen by God to make a new beginning for humankind. They like to think that their values are beyond question and their motives pure. Niebuhr described this attitude as “the myth of American innocence,” noting that Americans are often baffled and offended when others think badly of them, and generally insist that “our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of any of our actions.” These “pretensions of innocency” are associated with what Niebuhr called the “deep layer of messianic consciousness” that underlies U.S. foreign policy. Americans have often believed that God has summoned the nation to a special mission in the world.

The church sometimes falls into the same trap.  Churches have too often proclaimed their innocence while exercising unhealthy power over the marginalized and powerless.  Psalm 32 is helpful here.  It is the assigned psalm for reading during Lent in both Years A and C in the Revised Common Lectionary.  The psalm reminds us of our sin, our need for confession, and the speed and power of God’s mercy.  The text encourages the community of faith to confess their sins and receive divine forgiveness.

The psalm begins with two beatitudes, words of blessing for the righteous.  But our psalmist does not believe in the myth of innocence; those who are blessed are also those who incur guilt.

The psalm uses four words for sin:

  • Sin – to miss the mark (v.1).
  • Transgression – willful rebellion (v.1).
  • Iniquity – to be twisted or crooked (v.5).
  • Deceit – treacherous, unreliable, like a defective bow (v.2).

But note that for the righteous God’s forgiveness is readily available.  God ‘covers’ our sins (v.1) and does not ‘count’ them against us, that is, God declines to keep a record of it.  When we confess we are truly and wholly forgiven.

Verses 3-7 are a personal testimony to the effects of unacknowledged sin and the swiftness of God’s forgiveness following confession.  The experience of sin and silence (evasion?) is vivid and even physical:

  • My bones wasted away.
  • My strength was sapped.
  • But, ‘I said I will confess…and You forgave.’

Following the testimony the psalmist encourages the entire community to follow her example (v.8-10).  Then they too will be ‘glad in the Lord…will rejoice…and shout for joy!’  (v.11).

In the Eastern Orthodox church, choirs sing this psalm after a baptism, a witness to a lifelong experience of human sin that, through confession, is met again and again by God’s swift, forgiving grace.  -  Psalm 32